LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — At least 16 current and former Los Angeles County Sheriff's officers have been arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged inmate abuse in the nation's largest jail system, officials said Monday.
As many as 18 law enforcement officers were named in four grand jury indictments and one criminal complaint involving corruption and civil rights charges, FBI officials said.
The FBI has been investigating allegations of excessive force and other misconduct at the county's jails since at least 2011.
"It's never a pleasant thing to arrest a fellow law enforcement officer who is alleged to have committed serious criminal violations," said Bill Lewis, assistant director in charge of the L.A. field office of the FBI.
The cases, which involve alleged unjustified beatings of inmates and jail visitors and the obstruction of a federal probe, occurred in both the Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, according to U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr.
In one indictment, deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum are accused of assaulting two inmates at the Twin Towers facility and then filing phony reports to cover up the abuse.
A second indictment accuses former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack of arresting or detaining five people — including the Austrian consul general —when they tried to visit inmates at the Men's Central Jail.
The indictment alleges that Gonzalez fostered an atmosphere "that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures."
A third indictment charges seven sworn officers -- including two lieutenants -- with a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice involving an inmate who was cooperating with the FBI.
A fourth indictment charges one deputy with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle, and a criminal complaint charges three deputies with a mortgage fraud scheme.
"Unfortunately, the federal investigation found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum. In fact, the examples of illegal conduct alleged in these indictments demonstrated that certain individuals and certain of that behavior had become institutionalized," Birotte said.
Asked if he was saying Sheriff Baca had no knowledge of the crimes listed in the indictments, Lewis said "I am not saying that."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he welcomed the investigations, pointing to changes to the oversight of the jails made under his watch and denying that the charges suggest an institutional failure within the department. He called it a "sad day" for the LASD.
"There is no institutional problem within the sheriff's department," said Baca. "Fourteen or 15 people under indictment relative to jail activity is not an institutional number."
"We're dealing here with a process, a criminal justice process, and I trust the U.S. Attorney's Office for what its charges are and I trust the FBI for its relationship in doing what it does with our cooperation," Sheriff Baca said. "This is not a contest or a battle."
Baca also said "no one is above the law", echoing the comments of the U.S Attorney's Office.
The indictments were announced on the same day as a fundraiser for Baca's reelection campaign in downtown L.A.
ACLU Legal Director Peter Eliasberg told KNX 1070's Margaret Carrero the federal indictments mark a a sad day for Los Angeles.
ACLU Reacts To Charges In LASD Jails Probe
"Clearly, this department needs to get its house in order," Eliasberg said. "I don't think that, given between the jail commission, the indictments and other things, that there's any way the Sheriff's Department can reasonably defend itself and its behavior."
ACLU Executive Director Hector Villagra said the indictment undermines past explanations offered by Sheriff Baca.
"Sheriff Lee Baca and department officials have said repeatedly that excessive force was the fault of `a few bad apples,"' Villagra said. "The federal indictments today, coupled with the findings of the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence and numerous juries that a number of high-level sheriff's officials are also responsible, suggest the entire tree may be rotten."
Officials say the investigation is ongoing and more indictments were possible.
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